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Police Officer Candidate Assessment and Selection.

For some individuals, the mere sight of a law enforcement officer can elicit feelings of excitement, curiosity, or fear; however, these are mild effects that citizens can experience from afar. Yet, the officers themselves often experience long periods of boredom, peppered with moments of excitement and even sheer terror. In the lives of many officers, adrenalin becomes a drug and adversity becomes part of their daily lives. Handling feelings of separation, uselessness, and frustration becomes a ritual habit. Some officers handle the stress of the job adequately, while for others it can prove hazardous, if not debilitating.

Police officer misconduct may arise as a result of the various pressures this profession exerts, from officers' inappropriate management of the ensuing stress. The departments and governments that police officers represent frequently incur lawsuits as a result of the officers reaction to stress. In addition, the actions of individual officers can impact civilian and officer safety, and more generally, public opinion of a department or of law enforcement as a whole. Police officers are entrusted with a tremendous amount of authority. They make quick decisions and seldom make them under direct supervision. Improper actions can prove very costly, not only with regard to monetary judgements, but also in terms of investigative costs, personnel costs (i.e., staff shortages due to suspensions, dismissals, and temporary reassignments), and morale. [1]

Some experts believe that more or improved training will sufficiently manage the risks associated with police officer misconduct. However, departments rarely make improvements in the selection process of candidates prior to training. Police managers should direct critical emphasis in this initial phase in order to effectively combat the problem. The New York City Police Department estimated that each new officer costs approximately $500,000, which includes expenses incurred from recruitment through the end of an officer's probationary period. [2] Many benefits of weeding out potentially hazardous officers exist. These can include the financial savings of training and possible litigation as well as the influence that "bad" officers could have on their peers. Moreover, because supervisory and managerial positions generally are filled from within, the selection of entry-level officers greatly affects the future leadership of a department. [3] Police managers often assert that recruiters place too much emphasis on obtaining a large applicant pool, rather than quality applicants who have prepared for this type of career. Therefore, in order to have better patrol officer performance, departments should scrutinize the selection of candidates before attempting improvements in officer training.


Although methods of assessment and selection of candidates vary among the approximate 12,000 local and state law enforcement agencies in the United States, many similarities exist between the longstanding departments. Some of the tactics used may include written tests, a background investigation, physical exam, and an interview. The majority of agencies must follow state civil service regulations. For example, the New York State Civil Service Commission administers the preliminary police officer exam and then reports the results to departments who supervise subsequent stages of selection and assessment within the regulations set by the Civil Service Commission. However, many larger city jurisdictions can administer their own exam while adhering to both city and state civil service directives.

A typical candidate will express their interest in becoming a police officer by either applying directly for employment or taking a scheduled exam, usually given by the county or city personnel office. Administrators should remember that agencies hire less than 4 percent of those who apply to become police officers. [4] In the next phase, the personnel officer administers a group exam designed to test candidates' verbal skills, math aptitude and reasoning, clerical, and related perceptual abilities. [5] After grading this exam, which generally takes a few months, jurisdictions with openings will receive a list of the top-scoring candidates. Often, these candidates will have qualified already on a physical fitness test, which requires minimum performance on such exercises as sit-ups, pull-ups, squat thrusts, and a 50-yard dash.

Once applicants pass the first phase, agencies may use a variety of tests to further determine qualified candidates. For example, departments may use all or a combination of various methods, such as field background investigations, medical examinations, physical strength and agility tests, situational tests, psychological examinations, polygraph tests, and assessment centers.

Background Investigation

Research has shown that all departments use background investigations and medical examinations. Generally, departments place emphasis on the background investigation because an intensive background investigation can help to ensure agencies recruit only the most qualified individuals and also can indicate an applicant's competency, motivation, and personal ethics. [6] During this process, a candidate usually will complete a background questionnaire covering a breadth of data, including all places of residence, level of education, identities of family members and friends, and personal references. The questionnaire will ask an applicant to provide an employment record, credit history, criminal history, and any alcohol or other drug use. This document then serves as a basis for the investigation.

The investigator will confirm the veracity of each piece of information submitted by personally visiting all high schools and colleges that the candidate has attended, as well as interviewing past employers to discuss a candidate's work ethic, performance, honesty, and sociability. A candidate's credit history can serve as a cross-check of information on previous employers, addresses, creditors, history of credit payments, and any civil action taken against the candidate. Investigators can obtain driving and criminal records from state and federal authorities to determine if an applicant has any disqualifying offenses. In addition, the investigator should interview neighbors, spouses, and personal references to provide more details on the applicant's background and lifestyle. Finally, to complete this phase, a formal board interview should ask candidates to discuss current events, their interest in law enforcement, personal and professional backgrounds, and any discrepancies discovered by the investigating o fficer?

Medical Exam

This section of the hiring process requires that the candidate visit a physician, appointed by the department or certifying personnel agency, for a complete physical examination. The physician should attest that the candidate is generally in good health and meets certain minimum standards such as a height to weight ratio, 20/20 eyesight (corrected), and adequate hearing.

Physical Strength and Agility Tests

Research revealed that 80 percent of departments require applicants to take a physical fitness test. [8] The state civil service commission may require this type of test, which departments may administer subsequent to the written exam. Most agencies hold this test in the gymnasium of a local high school and often include pull-ups, to test strength; sit-ups, to test endurance; a run, to measure aerobic endurance; and an obstacle course, squat thrusts, or side lunges, to test agility. The exam also may include a test of hand strength to verify an applicant's ability to pull the trigger of a gun.

Although these exercises remain typical among many departments, some individuals often criticize the process as having a disparate impact on women. As a result, some applicants who fail this part of the process sue law enforcement agencies alleging that the tests do not assess job-related skills. If a physical agility test has a disparate impact on female applicants then such a test violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The only justification for a disparate impact is proof that the standards tested are required for the job. Police agencies often have lost legal challenges in such cases unless they could show that these standards apply to all of their on-board sworn personnel. The argument is that if the standard is requried for the job then it is necesary for people who already have the job. Because few police agencies are willing to fire employees who cannot meet such standards the courts have not upheld them. Only when the standard can be related to a public safety issue and is applied to on-bo ard personnel, will such standards be upheld.

Some departments have developed a newer battery of tests to assess specific characteristics needed for police officers, but less simulative in nature than other tests and scaled based on age and sex. This new test uses push-ups or a bench press to test absolute strength, sit-ups for muscular endurance, a 1.5- to 2-mile run for aerobic capacity, and a "sit-and-reach" for flexibility. In one department, a male, age 20 to 29, would need to complete a minimum of 38 sit-ups in 1 minute, reach 1.5 inches past his toes, bench press 99 percent of his body weight, and complete 1.5 miles in less than 12 minutes and 51 seconds. [9]

Situational Tests

Fifty-eight percent of departments use some type of real-life, simulated testing. [10] These tests may include mock crime scenes, simulated traffic stops, shoot/don't shoot decisions, leaderless group discussions, or role-playing scenarios. Assessment centers also use these types of exercises that incorporate many of the traditional techniques of selection with the addition and emphasis on situational exercises. Some individuals view this approach as an increasingly promising method of selection.

Psychological Testing

Candidates disqualified from employment based on psychological findings also can file lawsuits against the police agency. Fortunately, adjustments to the methods used and the way the findings are reported can reduce the expense of defending such decisions.

Departments use these screens to determine that a police officer candidate is mature, emotionally stable, independent, sociable, and capable of functioning in stressful situations. A certified psychologist, with experience in psychological assessment for law enforcement, should direct this screening process.

Initially, the candidate should take a personality inventory test. Of the exams used in police testing circles, the most popular are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, used by 60 percent of departments, and the California Personality Inventory, used by 19 percent of departments. [11]

Agencies must use the results in conjunction with other components of a psychological assessment in order for these test results to prove most useful. The psychologist should use the test results to indicate areas that investigators should probe further during an interview. The interview should follow a standardized format and elicit information relevant to a candidate's characteristics suitable for employment as a police officer.

The psychologist then should formulate a decision whether to permit or withhold employment of a candidate and prepare a written conclusive summary that completely articulates the assessment process and the reasoning behind the decision. In order to provide a legally defensible report, the assessor also should include specific examples of a candidate's character pathology (e.g., behavior, promptness, and dress).

Of all the phases in the selection process, administrators should consider the psychological exam with particular caution and meticulous planning. The psychological testing must accurately predict an applicant's performance as a police officer before departments can use it as a basis to disqualify an individual. [12]

Polygraph Tests

Although prohibited from use in most private sectors by the Employee Protection Act of 1988, government organizations can use polygraph testing. Approximately 56 percent of police departments use this test, based on measures of a person's respiration, heart rate, and galvanic skin response. [13] A qualified polygrapher will inquire about the information applicants provide on their background questionnaire in order to verify accuracy and completeness and to note any significant physiological irregularities.

A great deal of controversy has arisen as to the validity of polygraph measurements; therefore, departments should look at the results as a small part of a candidate's assessment process. Law enforcement professionals and polygraph administrators should use the machine to deter lying, rather than to detect it. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided that " the absence of scientific consensus, reasonable law enforcement administrators may choose to include a polygraph requirement in their hiring process without offending the equal protection clause." [14]

Assessment Centers

First, police administrators must realize the difference between an assessment center and an assessment center approach. An assessment center is a place where a series of events or exercises will occur; however, the assessment center approach is a method that supplements the traditional assessment and selection procedures with situational exercises designed to simulate actual police officer responsibilities and working conditions.

First used in its basic form by the Cincinnati, Ohio, Police Department in 1961, today, nearly 35 percent of police agencies use the assessment center approach in some form. [15] Some individuals predict this number to increase steadily, as the legal defensibility of this method becomes more widely appreciated. However, the relatively high cost of implementation has hindered the employment of this approach by more departments. Additionally, the fact that the exercises used do not require the candidate to have knowledge about police procedure raises another concern.

A department using the assessment center approach should follow a general outline. The first phase, where the candidates take the police officer exam, remains unchanged. Next, test administrators contact the individuals who scored highest on the exam to notify them of the date and time to report for the assessment test. Generally, this test occurs in a 1-day session, during which assessors rank all of the candidates. Most departments hold assessment centers in a local school or a large facility that offers a variety of rooms suitable for each phase of the testing.

Each candidate participates alternately in a series of five to eight exercises, each designed to assess a particular "dimension" necessary for a police officer. For example, the exercises ensure a candidate's ability to deal with the public, maintain emotional stability in stressful situations, work in teams, communicate adequately, and demonstrate the proper use of force. [16] Additionally, administrators should ensure that the tests--

* remain standardized;

* prove relevant and realistic to situations police officers might expect to face in the line of duty;

* have several alternative solutions;

* remain complex enough to engage the candidate;

* prove stressful enough to elicit a number of possible emotional responses; and

* not require specialized abilities. [17]

Individuals specifically selected and trained to serve as assessors will rate the performance of each candidate. Some experts suggest departments use one assessor for every two candidates and that the assessment panel include a police administrator, a psychologist, and a local citizen with a background in social work or community service. [18] Assessors should remain thoroughly trained and familiar with the methodology of the process and the exercises used and the dimensions being tested. They also should practice performing such ratings. Assessors should develop an overall rating of each candidate by discussing individual performance on the exercises and then come to an agreement with other assessors on each dimension.


Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States have a diverse choice of methods to assess and select their officers. The actual assessment and selection procedures prove critical in that process and present a prime opportunity to scrutinize those who will hold an enormous amount of authority. The performance of these officers likely will undergo strict criticism by a more-watchful-than-ever public.

The courts have encouraged the use of assessment centers as the most fair and job-related method of assessing police officer candidates. No other assessment tool can better extract behavior from candidates that would parallel their performance on the job. When properly executed, the assessment center approach will raise emotions and stress that cannot be roused with other traditional testing methods.

Administrators should place the assessment center method as an integral part of a comprehensive selection procedure. In doing so, they can confidently make new officer hires, and more important, ensure residents that the highest quality police officers serve and protect their communities.


(1.) G. F. Coulton and H. S. Feild, "Using Assessment Centers in Selecting Entry-Level Police Officers: Extravagance or Justified Expense?" Public Personnel Management, 1995, 2: 223-243.

(2.) E. Fitzsimmons, "N.Y.P.D. Psychological screening of Police Candidates: The Screening Process, Issues and Criteria in Rejection," Psychological Services for Law Enforcement, Library of Congress No. 85-60053 8 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1986).

(3.) Supra note 1.

(4.) M. Hyams, "Recruitment, Selection, and Retention: A Matter of Commitment," Police Chief, September 1991, 24-27.

(5.) P. Ash, K. B. Slora, and C. F. Britton, "Police Agency Officer Selection Practices," Journal of Police Science and Administration, 17, no. 4 (1990): 258-269.

(6.) T. H. Wright, "Pre-employment Background Investigations," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1991, 16-21.

(7.) D. Bradford, "Police Officer Candidate Background Investigation: Law Enforcement Management's Most Effective Tool for Employing the Most Qualified Candidate," Public Personnel Management, 27, no. 1 (1998): 423-424.

(8.) Supra note 5, 27, no. 1 (1998). The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits inquiries into disabilities until an agency has made a conditional offer of employment. This has the effect of prohibiting broad physical examinations prior to such an offer being made.

(9.) As published in Suffolk County, New York, Police Officer Examination Announcement, given May 1999.

(10.) Supra note 5.

(11.) Supra note 5.

(12.) D. Schofield, "Hiring Standards: Ensuring Fitnress for Duty," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1993, 27-32.

(13.) Supra note 5.

(14.) Anderson v. City of Philadelphia, 845 F.2d 1225 (3rd Cir. 1988).

(15.) Supra note 1.

(16.) J. Pynes, and H. J. Bemardin, "Entry-level Police Selection: The Assessment Center Is an Alternative," Journal of Criminal Justice, 1992, 20: 41-52.

(17.) Supra note 1.

(18.) Supra note 1.
 Use of Testing Procedures
Type of Procedure Number of Agencies Percentage
Field Background 62 100.0
Medical Exam 62 100.0
Physical Strength 49 79.6
 and Agility Tests
Situational Tests 36 58.1
Polygraph 35 56.5
Psychiatric Exam 35 56.5
Assessment Centers 14 22.6
Agency Usage (N=62)

Source: P. Ash, K.B. Siora, and C.F. Britton, "Police Agency Officer Selection Practices," Journal of Police Science and Administration, 17, no. 4 (1990): 258-69.

One Department's Assessment Method

The Appleton, Wisconsin, Police Department uses various exercises to assess their police officer candidates.

* Group discussion -- A leaderless interaction regarding a law enforcement topic that an entry-level candidate can understand that will elicit information on a candidate's interpersonal and communication skills.

* Situational response -- Observation of a department-prepared video tape requiring a written response regarding the situations presented that will obtain information to help gauge a candidate's problem-solving and written communication skills.

* Oral presentation -- Assignment of a topic for a candidate to present, with a limited preparation time to stimulate stress. Topics should elicit information on how well a candidate can adapt and react to adverse situations.

* Background/achievement report -- Response to questions that develop information about each candidate's life history and preparation for a law enforcement career.

* Observational response -- Analysis of a crime scene or prepared room, with instructions to document observations or find clues, which illustrates a candidate's information-gathering and problem-solving skills.

Source: B D. Kolpack, "The Assessment Center Approach to Police Officer Selection," Police Chief, September 1991, 44-46.
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Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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